The Pakistani government is asking citizens at home and abroad to help fund a $14 billion dam project. (Danial Shah for The New York Times)
Pav Akhtar is not one to fall for TV donation ads. He and his siblings jokingly chide their mother for watching them on Pakistani satellite channels at their home in England.
But when he saw the call on a Pakistani news show for overseas Pakistanis to donate to a new fund-raising initiative, he wired his money without hesitation.
“It’s not a generic begging bowl,” said Mr. Akhtar, 40. “It’s a specific demand for a specific outcome, and that motivates me.”
Mr. Akhtar was not donating to a charity, though. He was giving money to the government.
Financially challenged Pakistan is running a crowdsourcing-style campaign in a final effort to secure $14 billion to build two dams, which officials say will solve the country’s endemic shortages of water and electricity.
Donors are featured regularly on television news shows.
Radio ads across the country implore average citizens to donate even 10 rupees (less than 10 cents) over the phone. Pakistani celebrities have announced their own hefty donations on social media and made fund-raising appeals to their fans.
The country faces a balance-of-payments crisis, with a record $18 billion current account deficit for the last fiscal year
Recently, Pakistan announced that it had secured a $6 billion assistance package from Saudi Arabia to help with the crisis.
With Pakistan still discussing a possible multibillion-dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the Saudi assistance is likely to lower the amount requested. And Pakistan has already received several billion dollars in emergency loans this year from China, its major regional ally.
Other doors were closed this year when the United States froze aid and Pakistan was returned to an international financial “gray list,” in both cases over concerns that Pakistan was not doing enough to combat terrorist groups operating on its soil.
With few options left, the government is going directly to the people. The dam project would seem an unlikely way to galvanize Pakistanis, who in recent years have grown weary of corruption scandals and crumbling public services. Construction of the dams has yet to begin, and even the most optimistic estimates say they won’t be functional for at least a decade.
On September. 8, Imran Khan, the new prime minister, appealed on television to the nine million Pakistanis living abroad, asking them to give at least $1,000 each. As of October 8, they had donated about $3 million.
That is a small fraction of the $48 million raised since the government opened a bank account for donations in July. A Pakistani television network has noted that at the current rate, funding the dam would take 120 years.
Some estimates say two dams will not be functional for at least a decade. Housing being built for dam workers. (Danial Shah for The New York Times)
Critics say that even if the money is raised, the dams won’t be the silver bullet the Pakistani government would have donors believe.
Hassan Abbas, a hydrologist, said the government wants a political lift from the project, but that Pakistan’s water shortages actually stem from the outdated irrigation system left over from the British colonizers, which in many areas is more than 100 years old. An expensive dam project can’t fix the problem when it lies downstream, he said.
Mr. Akhtar, the donor in England, said he did not regret his decision. Endlessly debating the merits of the dams will only leave Pakistan where it has always been, he said: “It’s like arguing while Rome burns.”